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Pentagon braces for a makeover

Bush has assigned a big-picture review of the military to an iconoclastic analyst, who may file his report this week.

The Pentagon is bracing for a shake-up that could lead to the biggest makeover of America's fighting forces since the end of the cold war.

The first hint of change came a few days ago when President Bush refused to give the American military a quick boost to its $297 billion budget. Not yet, he said. The generals were surprised. Isn't this a pro-defense, Republican president?

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Then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced he was turning loose Andrew Marshall to see if there were ways the Pentagon could do things better.

That could mean big changes.

Mr. Marshall has been around nearly as long as the Pentagon itself. When he asks questions, it's not about the small items. He asks things like: Why do we have so many aircraft carriers? And, do we really need that new platinum-priced Air Force fighter jet?

It's enough to make generals and admirals squirm in their cushioned chairs.

Marshall is the Pentagon's resident iconoclast and foremost futurist. His ideas weren't very popular with the Clinton folks. But it turns out Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld like his ideas a lot.

Eventually, it's expected the military will get more money for things like spare parts, jet fuel (the price has gone up), and higher pay to boost sagging morale. But Marshall and Rumsfeld will also look at the bigger picture and ask: Does the Pentagon have the right equipment, and the right strategy, for the next 20 or 25 years?

Interviewed by the Monitor on Jan. 24, Marshall has made it clear he thinks the Pentagon is due for some big changes if it's going to keep the peace successfully in the future.

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And he's got plenty of supporters. Murray Feshbach, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and an expert on Russia, has known Marshall for 40 years and praises him as "a remarkable guy - really, really impressive." For years, Dr. Feshbach says, Marshall has assembled "oddball types" to pick their brains on defense issues. Many of these self-described "oddballs," like Feshbach, are PhDs, experts in everything from nuclear weapons to economics to demographics.

No weapon is sacrosanct to Marshall, including such hallowed Pentagon traditions as nuclear aircraft carriers and mainline battle tanks, or costly new projects like the next Air Force dream fighter, the F-22.

Nicholas Eberstadt, who has worked with Marshall on various projects, says that making large-scale changes in the worldwide American military structure is a huge job that takes "close to a generation" to achieve. New weapons must be invented, money must be procured, weapons must be built, and soldiers, sailors, and airmen must be retrained.

If the Pentagon's focus were to change significantly by the 2015 to 2025 time frame - something widely expected here in Washington - the moment to begin reshaping the US military is now. And that appears to be what the Bush White House hopes to accomplish.

From his nondescript, slightly scruffy office in the Pentagon, Marshall has frequently urged the American military in such new directions. Colleagues say that Marshall's published studies, such as "Asia 2025," indicate that he favors changes in at least two important areas of American military policy.

Refocusing on Asia

First, he would shift emphasis away from Europe and toward Asia. It is China - not Russia - that now poses the greatest potential threat to US security, his analysis concludes. China's rising military and economic power, its ambitions in the South China Sea, and its growing need for imported oil are all motivating Beijing to assert its influence over a wider sphere in Asia and the Pacific.

Second, Marshall has been critical of US weapons such as tanks and aircraft carriers that could be vulnerable to missiles and other high-tech threats. One solution could be a greater shift toward long-range, precision weapons, as well as technology that would give the US control of information on the battlefield. This would enable the US to use its technological prowess to blind and disable an opponent's command and communications capabilities.

Marshall has wrestled with military strategy since 1949, when George W. Bush was just a toddler. He began as a nuclear-weapons analyst for the Rand Corp, and became a Pentagon strategist in 1973. He has been there ever since, although Bill Clinton's Defense secretaries were reported to have largely ignored him.

Bush advisers, however, are taken with Marshall's concepts. During his campaign, Bush based some of his military proposals on Marshall's studies. Now, Bush appears ready to make even greater use of his ideas.

Marshall, who generally avoids press interviews, is no firebrand. He's so soft-spoken that this reporter had to push his tape recorder closer to pick up the words.

While he urges a shift toward an Asia strategy, Marshall makes it clear that Russia must remain an important priority for the United States. "They [Russia] are still a country with a very large stockpile of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles," he explains.

But Russia's nonnuclear threat is way down. "They currently don't have anything like the conventional military capabilities that they had," he says. "Not only in terms of manpower and sizes of forces, but also the equipment is not being modernized. Or the naval forces.... Except for a few submarines, they are not very operational."

'Obvious deficiencies'

Under those circumstances, Marshall wonders why most US planning for combat remains focused on Europe when "there are few foreseeable threats" in Europe, as his "2025" study states.

The reason is straightforward, his study concludes. "Europe is the preferred destination for top officers, and US command staffs in Europe are more elaborate and better-manned. The US command structure for Europe holds almost a 4-to-1 advantage over Asia in flag officers."

Furthermore, the Marshall study found that even though the military threat in Asia is growing, 85 percent of US military officers who are in language training are studying a European language. Only a few are training in Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, or any of the dialects of Indonesia, "to name some of the most obvious deficiencies."

It's that kind of blunt talk that could prompt Bush and Rumsfeld to order some American generals from Germany to South Korea, or to trade in fighter aircraft for long-range missiles, once Marshall's newest study is completed.

Marshall's preliminary analysis for Secretary Rumsfeld could be ready as early as this week, according to a news report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society